The official end to the 2013 Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) was more than five months ago, but, for many IYLEP alums, it was just a beginning. Since their return to Iraq in August, IYLEP students have taken the lessons of service and volunteerism from their summer in the U.S. to heart.
Each IYLEP host university designed a specific service program as part of their curriculum, and the impact on 2013 alums is clear. A number of students launched new organizations and volunteer associations upon their return to their home communities, many clearly inspired by their experience in the U.S.
For many alums, IYLEP offered the opportunity to see how global, national, and local service organizations operate and how service leaders shape their goals to fit the specific communities they serve. During the 2013 IYLEP program, students at UMass held a fundraiser at a local Amherst restaurant that brought in over $1,000 for a local senior citizens center. Obay Omar took what he learned and started identifying need in his own community. In Najaf, he connected to a community service group called “Moja,” or “The Wave,” that collected clothing and necessary items for poor families. Here he teamed with several IYLEP alumni from previous years as well as members of the Iraqi Youth Parliament. As he describes it, “The main aim of the group is try to end discrimination and create better understanding, by building bridges between people of all regions of Iraq despite their different ethnicities and believes, and by uniting young people’s efforts through volunteer work.”
The group, originally based in the south of Iraq, had struggled to find reliable donation centers in the north of the country like Mosul, and Omar was eager to help in his home town. As part of their work to help Syrian refugees, they launched a campaign called “1 million pieces of cloth.” The immediate response in the form of clothing donations was overwhelming, and they had to recruit new volunteers to help sort, clean, and pack everything. Omar specifically cited the leadership trainings at UMass conducted Jenni Smith during the IYLEP program as an inspiration. With the skills he learned there, he brought in new organization members and networked to establish collection locations in local mosques and a shopping mall. He also reflected on the work of his UMass group in raising money for the Amherst senior center, noting with pride how Iraqi students from diverse parts of the country came together to help a community across the planet.
Talking to Omar today, it’s clear his IYLEP experience not only inspired him to give back to his home community, but also gave him the skills to make those efforts successful and sustainable.